Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Declines to Change Bright-Line Rule in Easement Cases

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently decided an easement dispute involving a nature preserve and a neighboring landowner in Taylor v. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Comm’n (Mass. Oct. 11, 2016). At issue was whether the owner of the nature preserve could use an easement on the plaintiffs’ property to access a parcel of land that the easement was not originally intended to serve. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and the Supreme Judicial Court ultimately affirmed that decision, declining to modify the bright-line rule disallowing any use of an easement to benefit land to which the easement is not appurtenant.

In Taylor, the defendant owned and managed a nature preserve, which was comprised of various parcels of land purchased by the defendant in 1990. In 2010, the defendant created a hiking trail through its nature preserve, which it planned to open to the public. The trail began on a main road, crossed over the plaintiffs’ property by way of a 40-foot-wide easement, and proceeded across three parcels of the defendant’s land benefited by the easement. The trail then entered a fourth parcel owned by the defendant, which was not intended to benefit from the easement. The plaintiffs filed an action to prevent the defendant from using the easement as part of the hiking trail, arguing that it was improper for the trail to cross over the easement and continue onto the fourth parcel because the easement was not intended to serve that parcel.

An easement appurtenant is one created for the benefit of a particular parcel of land, in which the right to use that easement is tied to the ownership or occupancy of that particular parcel of land. In Massachusetts, it is well-settled that an easement may not be used to serve a parcel of land to which it is not appurtenant. As a result, absent permission from the servient landowner, the use of an easement to access property located beyond the parcel tied to the easement constitutes an overburdening of the easement. This limitation is a bright-line rule that applies even if there would be no additional use of the easement or burden to the plaintiff’s estate.

In Taylor, the defendant acknowledged the bright-line rule but urged the court to adopt a new rule that would consider whether the use of the easement by an adjacent parcel would place an additional burden on the plaintiff’s estate beyond the scope intended in the original grant. The court declined to do so, noting the uncertainty that the proposed rule would introduce into land ownership. The court explained that the proposed inquiry could result in more litigation and would lead to a less predictable outcome. In addition, the traditional rule, while it may prevent hikers from walking in a single loop, did not result in a substantial impracticability. Accordingly, the court affirmed the decision in favor of the plaintiffs.

If you are involved in a dispute regarding the use or boundary of your land, an experienced real estate lawyer can present options you may have available to you under the law. At the Massachusetts firm of Pulgini & Norton, our land use attorneys represent clients in a variety of property law matters, such as home closings and mortgages, permits, easements, and other real estate cases. Schedule an appointment to discuss your issue with a capable attorney at Pulgini & Norton by calling (781) 843-2200 or contacting us online.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decides Jurisdictional Issue in Railroad Easement Case, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 8, 2016

Massachusetts Appeals Court Sides with Property Owner in Case Against Town Over Easement Rights, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published August 22, 2016

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